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November 23, 2012 1:22 PM
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Scorsese Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Explains Why Old Movies May Never Look (or Sound) the Same Again

A still from Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence" Sony
You've heard it plenty of times by now: cinema, as we have come to know it, is dead.

In a new piece for The Atlantic, Daniel Eagan explains why old films, shot and exhibited on film, may not be getting the restorations they deserve.

Helped out by the wise words of Martin Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Eagan explains why Sony does not have, nor can it produce, a film print of Scorsese's 1993 film "The Age of Innocence."  The Museum of Moving Image wanted to screen the film in their gorgeous theater in Astoria, Queens, but the studio no longer stores a copy of the print.  Nor do they want to pay the high prices of a digital conversion for just one screening.

Just screen it on DVD, you say?  Could you say that about every film that doesn't have a film print, without batting an eye?

Schoonmaker has a few words for you:  

"I saw a digitized version of a film that David Lean made during World War II, and it looked just like a TV commercial that was shot yesterday... It was wrong, the balance was completely off. Originally it had a slightly muted look, and now here were all these insanely bright blues."

Eagan explains further, "Schoonmaker believes that the colorists who have been trained in the last 10 or 15 years 'have no idea what these movies should look like anymore.' But she isn't opposed to DCP's on principle. Technicolor films like 'The Red Shoes' and 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' couldn't have been restored without digital methods. 'The Red Shoes' looks the way it does now because Scorsese, Schoonmaker, and Bob Gitt from the UCLA Film and Television Archive could take the time to compare their work to prints from Scorsese's collection and the BFI archives."

Further on, Eagen supplies more evidence of how much owners of intellectual property don't want to go through the channels to properly restore old films.  He includes a tidbit about how the owners of the Laurel and Hardy films didn't want to pony up for a restoration, so the UCLA Film and Television Archives crowdfunded it instead.

When it comes to restoring old films and the colors aren't always just right and the sound is muffled, the question needs to be:  Are we happy with what we've got or should we pay more to get closer to what the artists intended?

Read Eagan's whole piece on The Atlantic site here.

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